Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What's Athanasius Got to Do With It?

Another of the basically irrelevant Trinitarian objections against translating the Sahidic Coptic of John 1:1c as "and the Word was a god" -- which is clearly what it literally says -- is that the Coptic translators could not possibly have "meant" to say that.

The reason given is that the dynamic 4th century Coptic scholar, theologian, bishop and "saint" Athanasius was the staunch adherent of Trinitarianism. And the Coptic Church itself is Trinitarian.

That argument may be of some value in refuting the inaccurate charge that everything Coptic must, by definition, also be Gnostic.

But it has no bearing on positively identifying the theology of the 2nd or 3rd century Sahidic Coptic translators, and no bearing on identifying their possible theological presuppositions while translating John 1:1.

Coptic scholar and translator George W. Horner, in his classic Coptic New Testament English translation, postulates a 2nd century date for the Coptic New Testament. Other scholars, and the Anchor Bible Dictionary give a 3rd century date.

Coptic Church tradition also dates the Coptic New Testament to the 2nd century, "under the supervision of St. Pantaenus [late second century] and St. Clement [160-215]." Therefore, it is quite possible that the Sahidic Coptic translation of the Gospel of John predated Athanasius [300-373] by a couple of generations.

So, what's Athanasius got to do with it?

And as for the Coptic Church, it has not always been a Trinitarian church. Its tradition ascribes its founding the the Gospel writer "Saint" Mark, and there is nothing Trinitarian in Mark's Gospel.

Besides, there was another famous (or infamous, according to one's view) presbyter and theologian in 4th century Alexandria, Egypt. His name was Arius, the noted opponent of Trinitarianism, whose doctrine "was once at least as popular as the doctine that Jesus is God." (Richard Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, p. 7). Before Nicea (325 CE) many Coptic and other bishops considered Arius' theology to be "orthodox."

So, IF a case could be made for Athanasian Trinitarian influence upon the Sahidic Coptic translators, a similar case could be made for Arian, non-Trinitarian influence.

In point of fact, however, the Sahidic Coptic translators are anonymous. We don't know who they were. Therefore, it is impossible to state dogmatically what their theological presuppositions were, or even if their theological presuppositions influenced their translation of John 1:1.

It is just as likely that they simply made a fair, honest, and accurate translation of John's Greek as they understood it: ne.u.noute pe p.shaje, "And the Word was a god."

Attempts to link Athanasian Trinitarianism to the Sahidic Coptic translators is shown to be just another smokescreen put up by apologists for whom Coptic John 1:1 is extremely unsettling and inconvenient.


vasileios78 said...

There is not a single Father of the Church before Athanasius (perhaps except Gregory the Thaumaturgus) that could be called an "orthodox trinitarian". Beyond an inclination to triadology (which was a Platonizing heritage of the Alexandrian Philo to the Christian philosophers), the mainstream Christianity of the 2nd and 3rd century considered Jesus as inferior to his Father and not identical to God Almighty. Those who claimed that Jesus is God himself were considered as heretics, as was the case of the disciples of Sabellius and Noetus. In the 3rd century, the most prominent Christian theologian and scholar, who was the head of the catechetical school of Alexandria, Origen, was one of the most famous subordationists. Origen was a great influence to the Alexandrian Arius. But the difference between Origen and Arius was that Origen considered, with philosophical, Platonizing arguments about the immutability of God, the creation of the Son as non-temporal, something that means that practically Jesus was a creature co-existent with the Creator. Arius did now accept that and he was preaching that there was a time the Father was alone.

Memra said...

Thanks for your comments. They are very interesting, and quite informative.

vasileios78 said...

In case you need bibliographical documentation for my comment, do not hesitate to mail me in

p.s.: At the last sentence of my previous post, "now" was meant to be "not".

vasileios78 said...

It is very interesting to study the comments of the Alexandrian Origen (early 3rd century) on John 1:1 (available in

"We next notice John’s use of the article in these sentences. He does not write without care in this respect, nor is he unfamiliar with the niceties of the Greek tongue. In some cases he uses the article, and in some he omits it. He adds the article to the Logos, but to the name of God he adds it sometimes only. He uses the article, when the name of God refers to the uncreated cause of all things, and omits it when the Logos is named God. Does the same difference which we observe between God with the article and God without it prevail also between the Logos with it and without it? We must enquire into this. As the God who is over all is God with the article not without it, so “the Logos” is the source of that reason (Logos) which dwells in every reasonable creature; the reason which is in each creature is not, like the former called par excellence The Logos. Now there are many who are sincerely concerned about religion, and who fall here into great perplexity. They are afraid that they may be proclaiming two Gods, and their fear drives them into doctrines which are false and wicked. Either they deny that the Son has a distinct nature of His own besides that of the Father, and make Him whom they call the Son to be God all but the name, or they deny the divinity of the Son, giving Him a separate existence of His own, and making His sphere of essence fall outside that of the Father, so that they are separable from each other. To such persons we have to say that God on the one hand is Very God (Autotheos, God of Himself); and so the Saviour says in His prayer to the Father, “That they may know Thee the only true God;” but that all beyond the Very God is made God [without article] by participation in His divinity, and is not to be called simply God (with the article), but rather God (without article). And thus the first-born of all creation, who is the first to be with God, and to attract to Himself divinity, is a being of more exalted rank than the other gods beside Him, of whom God is the God, as it is written, “The God of gods, the Lord, hath spoken and called the earth.” It was by the offices of the first-born that they became gods, for He drew from God in generous measure that they should be made gods, and He communicated it to them according to His own bounty. The true God, then, is “The God,” and those who are formed after Him are gods, images, as it were, of Him the prototype. But the archetypal image, again, of all these images is the Word of God, who was in the beginning, and who by being with God is at all times God, not possessing that of Himself, but by His being with the Father, and not continuing to be God, if we should think of this, except by remaining always in uninterrupted contemplation of the depths of the Father."

Even though this translation is made by a Trinitarian who avoided using the indefinite article to the anarthrous "god", which is refering to Jesus or to the angels, the meaning of Origen's sayings is quite clear: The Only True God, the One that is God by himself (autotheos), is the Father, and this is the reason John uses the article before the word "God". On the other hand, Logos is called God without the article because he is inferior to his Father and because his owns his divinity to his Father.

Memra said...

Many thanks for the excellent information and for the web link.

Yes, even though the early Church Fathers are sometimes inconsistent in explaining the relationship between the Father and the Son, there is nothing in their writings that supports the orthodox Trinitarianism of later centuries.

Of course, some of the inconsistencies of their writings may, in fact, be due to translators who retrojected into the writings of the Fathers, the doctrines of later times.

Either way, what Origen says is clear, and refutes the idea that contemporaneous Coptic translators were influenced by Gnosticism or even Arianism.

Instead, the work of the Coptic translators most likely reflected a Biblical Christianity and good translation efforts.

Great work on your part!

micheygirl66 said...

Hey thanks for your blog!Your reasoning and information is much appreciated and valuable.

Matt13weedhacker said...

Hi Memra.

Just a little side point.

"...before Athanasius (perhaps except Gregory the Thaumaturgus)..."

Just like to point out that several scholars think Gregory's so-called "TRI{3}nitarian" creed is quite likely to have been tampered with.

So his credibility as a "genuine" witness to the TRi{3}ad doctrine is in serious question.

Just another example of the shoody foundation of Christendoms doctrine.